Five leadership lessons I learned from dancing

Throughout my adult life, and even sometimes when I was a teenager, people have told me that I have leadership qualities, or that they’ve noticed people looking to me for direction. For a long time, I never really paid much attention to this idea. Now and then, someone would ask me to help lead their club or organization, because they looked at me and saw what they thought was a leader. But most of the time, I sort of floundered in these positions. I simply didn’t know how to lead an organization or its people, and I’d quickly lose interest. And my work as a software developer, often hunched over a computer keyboard solving problems by myself for hours on end, never really made me feel like much of a leader. To me, it seemed that a leader was supposed to have an agenda they’re trying to realize, and some sort of ability to convince people to jump into action to work on that agenda. This doesn’t sound anything like me! I’m just trying to do my job, right? Do I have an agenda? Can I somehow make people just do things for me?

As my career has advanced, I’ve reached a point where there is sometimes an expectation and/or a specific request for me to step up and lead a team of developers in some way. I’ve gingerly stepped into this sort of role a few times, but haven’t always known how to proceed. Am I supposed to be a manager? Should I get an MBA? For me personally, I don’t really think so, but I think that’s OK, because I’ve started finding a path forward from an unexpected area: dance.

A few months ago, I started attending a Lindy Hop course. Lindy Hop is a form of swing dance that has plenty of variation and movement, and (for more advanced dancers) lots of speed and acrobatics. This is my first time trying to learn how to dance at all, so for me, everything is new. I was aware from the start that in most forms of partner dance, one person (typically a man) is supposed to “lead,” and the other (typically a woman) is supposed to “follow.” I had no idea what those words meant in practice, however. Looking at a couple doing Lindy Hop, I just saw two people moving in unison, with no obvious communication between the two of them. Who’s the follower and who’s the lead? How is the lead telling the follower what to do?

[via GIPHY. This is not a depiction of the author.]

For as long as I’ve observed (but not practiced) partner dance, this has been a mystery to me. Even knowing that the man is typically the lead, I couldn’t see what the man was actually doing to lead his partner. In fact, if you disregard the conventions of gender, clothing, and who’s spending more of their time spinning around, it’s really hard for an outsider to see who’s the lead and who’s the follower. For the dancers, however, it’s as plain as day. Once I began to understand how leading and following works in Lindy Hop, it wasn’t long before I started thinking about how these concepts might relate to the concept of leadership in other areas, such as work, politics, sports, or even just a group of friends out for a night on the town.

Here are five key elements I’ve identified for successfully dancing with a partner, and some ideas about how they relate to leadership in work, and in other aspects of life.

1. Get a feel for each other

A lead and a follower negotiate the basics of their dance wordlessly, and in just a few seconds. When dancing with a new partner, we start off in a predetermined position. Her right hand is in my left hand, my right arm is reaching around her back or waist, and her left arm is resting on my right upper arm, with her hand on my shoulder. In Lindy Hop, this is called “closed position.” We bounce lightly with the music for a few beats, and together we establish a certain amount of tension between our bodies, through our arms. Neither of us are stiff, and neither of us are flopping around like fish, we’re going for the “just right” amount of tension. We maintain a comfortable hold on each other, with a small distance between us. Imagine you’ve just hugged an old friend, and have then leaned back a little to look them in the eyes and say, “Good to see you, old friend,” but you still have your arms part-way around each other; it’s something like that. There’s no tight squeezing going on, but you’re not quite letting go, either.

To successfully lead people, it’s important to establish rapport. Especially in work situations, it’s often the case that people will simply be assigned to follow someone, regardless of whether they feel any natural affinity with that person. If you’re assigned to lead a group of people, it’s important to try to get close to them at a human level, in a friendly, relaxed way. Don’t just barge in and start bossing people around; Instead, meet people on their own terms, sit down to talk with them, try to get a feel for who they are.

2. Get on the floor together

With the basic position established, we can start moving to the beat. The basic idea of dancing in closed position is that the two of us follow one of just a few predefined sequences of steps, grouped into pairs of steps and faster triplets of steps. I’m not going to try to describe it here, but will just say that the basic combinations are pretty standardized in this type of dance, and every newcomer learns some of them in the first hour of dancing. After some practice, these basic eight-count patterns become second nature.

As my partner and I are doing these steps together, just staying in closed position, I can begin to move us around the floor. I can make us turn together, I can make us move forward (which is backward from my partner’s point of view) or backward (forward from my partner’s point of view), etc. To do this, all I do is move my body in the direction I want to move. Specifically, I use my legs to move my torso where I want us to go, and try to keep my arms in the same position and tension (relative to my body) that they already were. If my partner is maintaining the same position and tension in her arms as well, then the movement of my torso will travel directly to her torso, through our arms. All she has to do is let her legs follow her torso, while lifting and setting down her feet in the standard patterns, and she’ll go wherever I go. If it feels like I’m using any force to push or pull my partner around, then something is wrong. Either I’m not being clear enough in my movements, or my partner isn’t paying attention, or isn’t letting her torso just follow mine. If everything is working, this should feel so effortless and obvious that you can easily have a conversation while dancing around in closed position. The whole thing seems like magic at first, and it takes some practice to get it right, but once you experience it, it suddenly makes sense.

Few work activities match the physical closeness of dancing, but in many work situations, followers benefit from having a leader who is actually doing some of the work with them, and a leader benefits from being “on the floor” with their followers, working alongside them at least some of the time. The best leaders have enough understanding of their followers’ tasks to help them do their best work, and this understanding often comes, in part, from doing some of the work themselves.

3. Be receptive to input from followers

The first few times I went to a Lindy Hop drop-in trial course, there were a couple of older ladies in attendance who were new to Lindy Hop, but had clearly done other types of partner dance for years. As we learned the basic steps, I discovered that each time I danced with one of these ladies, they followed my movements with what seemed to be effortless, automatic smoothness. It seemed like I could move however I wanted, and they’d just float along, their feet bouncing along underneath them. I was dancing for the first time in my life, and I felt like a king! One of the amazing things about this kind of dance is the way that with a minimal physical connection and some simple movement patterns agreed upon in advance, we can interact in new ways, and enjoy the physicality of bouncing to the beat of the music in a way that you really can’t do on your own. These ladies were so good at following, that without even saying a word, they were able to teach me important lessons about how to lead.

In any leadership context, it’s crucial that the leader pays attention to what their followers are doing and saying. It may be tempting, as a leader, to think that you’re in charge and should be able to call the shots, but a smart leader knows the value of relying on their smart followers to help see the right way to take each step.

4. Clear a path for your followers

From what I’ve described so far, it may seem like there’s an unfair imbalance here, like one of us is just telling the other where to go all the time. Shouldn’t we at least take turns? If we were only dancing in closed position, that might make sense. But at least in Lindy Hop’s case, a lot of what’s going on happens in a different configuration called “open position”, and in the transitioning between closed and open positions. In open position, the lead and the follower move apart from each other, and are often doing pretty different things. The follower is often doing more turns and spins, and the lead is usually just a little more “static” than follower. This changes the equation pretty substantially. The follower is being “told what to do,” but the follower gets something out of this. In partner dance, a lead and a follower are exchanging services.

As a lead, I’m responsible for choosing what we are going to do from one moment to the next. This includes which direction we’re moving, whether we’re initiating a sequence that’s going to send us apart into open position or pull us together into closed position, whether my partner is going to do a turn or a spin, etc. I need to be on the lookout for obstacles, and make sure that my partner doesn’t crash into them. On a busy dance floor, there are other dancers, walls, and maybe other kinds of trouble to look out for. My partner is likely to be doing turns a lot more frequently than I am, so I need to keep an eye on our surroundings. If I’m not paying attention to the direction I’m sending my partner, I may send her on a collision course with another dancer, or worse, into a wall! If I send my partner out on a free spin, I’ve got to make sure that I have a hand in place to stop her spin at just the right time and bring us back together.

I’m taking care of the overall structure and direction of our movement, so my partner is free to focus on the details of her part of the dance. She doesn’t have to worry about whether she’s going to crash into someone. She’s free to focus on her footwork, on when she wants to swivel her feet, throw in some kicks, etc. Even though she’s frequently doing these things while turning or spinning, I’m making sure she’s got nothing to worry about.

In a corporate context, a leader often has a broader perspective than their followers do, because they may be aware of externalities before their followers are. A careful leader uses this knowledge to make sure that they can create a clear, safe path for their followers to move along, giving them the freedom to work to the best of their abilities within the given path.

5. When all else fails, just keep going

Sometimes while dancing, my partner and I will fall out of step. Maybe the music is a little too quiet and we lose the beat, or one of us gets distracted and loses count of their steps. Or, most likely, I’m not giving clear directions, and so my partner and I end up with a different idea of what the next movement is. It only takes a split-second for this to happen, and in my experience, this happens a lot. It happens every time I’m dancing, for sure, maybe a couple of dozen times in an hour! The best remedy for this that I know is to simply reconnect with my partner and keep going! I look her in the eyes and take her by the hand, we both laugh a little, and then we start bouncing until the next down-beat, when it feels right to start moving again. By not making a big deal out of small mishaps, we’re able to just pick up where we left off and get back to having a good time.

Flexible leaders understand that unexpected things happen all the time. They don’t make a big fuss about problems that that can be easily corrected, and they have enough insight to understand that they, themselves, may be the origin of many problems! They help their followers adapt to the new situation and get right back to work.

The take-away

In business, as in dance, leadership isn’t about being a boss, or ordering people around. It’s about doing specific things together with the people you’re leading, so that everyone can move forward. A leader provides structure and a path, making some decisions on behalf of (and hopefully to the benefit of) their followers, freeing them to do their part of the work with as few obstacles as possible. This lets a group of people accomplish much more than they ever could individually.

To summarize, here are five leadership skills that I’ve learned from dancing:

  1. Establish rapport with everyone who’s following you.
  2. Work together with your followers, so you understand what they’re going through and what they need.
  3. Pay attention to your followers. Their words and actions will teach you about what you’re doing well, and what needs improvement.
  4. Give your followers a clear, safe path.
  5. When things go wrong (and they will, often), don’t get caught up in negativity or blaming. Just get your bearings and keep going!

I don’t pretend that mine is a complete or perfect analysis, and I’m surely not the only person who’s thought of this, but I’ve never seen this connection mentioned before. Now that I’ve started to think this way, it’s really changed how I look at situations where I’m placed in a leadership role. Hopefully these insights will be helpful to others as well!